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Anatomy Of A Takedown: William F. Buckley Jr. Vs. George Wallace

National Urban League President Vernon Jordan Jr., left, and William F. Buckley Jr., host and inquisitor of the public television show Firing Line, find something to laugh about at the 15th birthday celebration of the show in New York, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 1981. Jordan was one of 48 guests on the show who had come to celebrate with Buckley. (Kaye/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
National Urban League President Vernon Jordan Jr., left, and William F. Buckley Jr., host and inquisitor of the public television show Firing Line, find something to laugh about at the 15th birthday celebration of the show in New York, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 1981. Jordan was one of 48 guests on the show who had come to celebrate with Buckley. (Kaye/AP)

Now that congressional Democrats have settled on legislative “total war on Trump,” some progressives are worried the artillery is wreaking collateral damage on the president’s working-class base. “[D]emocrats often sound patronizing when speaking of Trump voters,” demonizing them along with their disdain-deserving leader, laments New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

For an example of what concerns him, check out the comments thread to a recent Cognoscenti column urging “empathy” for the president and his backers. A progressive backlash against preaching empathy for Trump is unsurprising; the anger in some comments against the “uneducated people” and “forgotten men” supporting him is something else. In a polarized era of neighbors, family members and protesters screaming at each other over Trumpism, another writer asserts, “There is little doubt about our need to find language that illuminates the dark abyss separating those who approve of our new president’s words and executive orders and Cabinet appointments from those appalled by them.”

...you might ask which words should be weaponized to resist an anti-immigrant, anti-environment, anti-safety net chief executive, and should they be fired at his supporters as well?

If you’re in the latter camp, as I am, you might ask which words should be weaponized to resist an anti-immigrant, anti-environment, anti-safety net chief executive, and should they be fired at his supporters as well? To answer this, I found an instructive model from a half-century ago, when another populist double-talker was confronted by a famous wordsmith.

In January 1968, William F. Buckley Jr. featured segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace on Buckley’s "Firing Line" interview show. You couldn’t have paired an odder couple: Buckley, the Yale-educated, sesquipedalian guru of modern conservatism, and Wallace, the farmer’s son who’d futiley blocked the schoolhouse door five years earlier against black students at his state’s university. The mens' dust-up, broadcast as Wallace readied a third-party presidential bid, today plays like a toned-down foretaste of the long-running public television program "The McLaughlin Group," with repeated interruptions and efforts to out-snark one another. (Said a smiling Buckley: “You’re telling me stuff that I knew when I was 3 years old, governor.”)

The program, archived by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, corroborates the observation that Wallace was Trump before Trump became Trump, down to the surly, just-bit-into-a-lemon grimaces at what he calls the “pseudo-intellectual” Buckley. The latter, coolly, sometimes self-deprecatingly, but relentlessly swatting Wallace’s denials of racism, was, admittedly, a problematic defender of racial equality. In 1957, he’d suggested that the white South was entitled to thwart African-American aspirations “...because for the time being, it is the advanced race.” Like Wallace, Buckley opposed the 1960s civil rights legislation, a stance he’d recant years later.

Destiny, if not Buckley, intended for the Wallace interview to be redemptive (the host’s stated goal was to expose Wallace as a non-conservative, not rehash his renowned racial views).

“I’ve never said that you should have segregation of the school system or any other,” Wallace said.

“What steps did you take to encourage the enfranchisement of the Negro back before the [federal] government got on your back?" Buckley countered. "… It’s a clear part of the historical record…that the South not only didn’t encourage its Negroes to vote, but encouraged them not to vote.”

Gov. George Wallace blocks the entrance to the University of Alabama as he turned back a federal officer attempting to enroll two black students at the university campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala., June 11, 1963. (AP Photo/File)
Gov. George Wallace blocks the entrance to the University of Alabama as he turned back a federal officer attempting to enroll two black students at the university campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala., June 11, 1963. (AP Photo/File)

In another exchange, when Wallace defended his home region as more law-abiding than the North, Buckley parried that southern law enforcement techniques were, “to say the least, unusual—the Ku Klux Klan, for instance...”

What does this decades-old brawl teach us about handling Trump? The lesson for liberals seething at the president is that there are more ways to skin a strongman than just venting rage. As necessary as the outrage-fueled mass protests against Trump are, Buckley shows how calm reason and humor can also dismantle a foe. Anger can go too far; smart liberals know that actions such as blocking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from visiting a school only sink to Trump’s puerile incivility and risk turning off some people who might be open to their viewpoint.

For their part, Trump voters must understand that they don’t get a pass just because they’re genuinely pissed. Wallace’s voters sincerely feared their ebbing white privilege; Buckley still called out collective Dixie racism. Today, it’s fair game to note the data showing that too many Trump supporters are indeed bigots, their Wallace-like disclaimers notwithstanding.

Of course, they're not all bigots. Kristof reminds us that some Trump folks voted for Barack Obama. But their support is even more confounding. If Trump is a con man peddling preposterous promises (Mexico will pay for that wall; Obamacare can be replaced with equal but cheaper coverage; climate change is a dismissible hoax), how gullible can his voters be?

...it's fair game to hold a reality-reflecting mirror to Trump's supporters when their views are abhorrent or just plain ignorant, as Buckley did with segregationists.

Democratic discourse depends on a common frame of reality among citizens of differing views. I spoke to one pro-Trump friend during the campaign, trying to understand her politics, only to find they relied on half-truths and misinformation. Buckley was right: The voters blow it sometimes, as he said in the Wallace interview.

Should the opposition emulate Trump’s rudeness? No. But it's fair game to hold a reality-reflecting mirror to Trump's supporters when their views are abhorrent or just plain ignorant, as Buckley did with segregationists.

Wallace found the KKK remark insulting to his people. It certainly was. But below-the-belt? I doubt African-Americans living under Jim Crow would have thought so.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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